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Thumb Sucking - Should you be worried about the long term effects on your child's teeth?

By Dr Runa Mowla-CopleyThumb Sucking

75% of babies suck their thumbs - should parents be worried about the long term effects on their teeth?[/caption] If you’re worried about your baby sucking his thumb, or you’ve decided you want to stop your toddler doing it – or you want to know more about how thumb sucking might affect your child’s teeth, then this post is for you.

Dr Runa Mowla-Copley is an expert in thumb sucking. In 2010 she co-founded of one of London’s first Thumb Sucking Clinics and has been interviewed on BBC Radio, national press and appeared on American television discussing the effects of prolonged thumb sucking. Here are her thoughts and advice for you:

Thumb sucking is a very common childhood habit, with three quarters of infants sucking their thumb in their first year. Indeed, sucking the thumb is considered normal behaviour for babies and can even start in the womb. Ultrasound scans have observed babies in the womb sucking their thumbs from 28 weeks gestation. The majority of experts agree that a thumb sucker younger than 5 shouldn't be pressured to stop.

Most children will simply grow out of the habit. However, if it continues once your child starts school, it can have a negative effect on developing teeth and bite. If your child is still sucking his thumb or finger when his adult teeth start to erupt, it really is time to take action to break the habit.

Thumb sucking has the following effects on the mouth and teeth:

  1. Upper front teeth stick out
  2. Lower front teeth move inward
  3. Anterior open bite where the upper and lower front teeth do not meet
  4. Narrowing of the upper arch which leads to the development of a crossbite

Persistent thumb sucking can lead to speech problems such as lisping and imprecise pronunciation (especially of Ts and Ds). Once the habit has been stopped, natural improvement of the teeth can occur within 6 months.  If the habit breaks before the adult dentition becomes established (age 7/8) your child is unlikely to have caused any longterm damage to their teeth.  

So how can you help your child stop?

Home remedies such as placing a glove, sock or thumb guard before bedtime, painting the thumb with various foul tasting substances can be successful if combined with positive reinforcement and encouragement; praise your child when they are not sucking their thumb rather than scolding them when they are. Let your child know that placing a sock or thumb guard over his hand at night is not a punishment, just a way to help him remember to avoid sucking.  

Helpful Tips:

  1. Start a progress chart and let him put a sticker up every day that he doesn't suck his thumb. If he makes it through a week without sucking, he gets to choose a prize (trip to the zoo, new set of blocks, etc.) When he has filled up a whole month reward him with something great (new toy); by then the habit should be over. Making your child an active participant in his treatment will increase his willingness to break the habit.
  2. If you notice your child sucking when he's anxious, work on alleviating his anxiety rather than focusing on the thumb sucking.
  3. Take note of the times your child tends to suck (long car rides, while watching movies) and create diversions during these occasions.
  4. Explain clearly what might happen to his teeth if he keeps sucking his thumb.

Whatever your method, always remember that your child needs your support and understanding during the process of breaking the thumb sucking habit. And as most children suck their thumbs when they are tired or bored, keeping their hands busy helps!

Visit your dentist – it’s amazing what a few words from an expert to your child can do! I often get parents call up the next day to say that whatever I said to their child has magically made them break their habit overnight.

Most children are unaware how their little thumbs can affect their mouth and teeth and react in a very positive way when this is demonstrated to them. And if all that fails, consider a habit breaker fitted by a dentist or orthodontist.

Is it worth the aggro?

Yes. More than 60% of UK’s 10 year old digit suckers have very serious bite problems that can require lengthy (and costly) courses of orthodontic treatment.  

Charlie's Thumb Charlie's Thumb/ Good news for all those despairing parents with a very little stubborn thumb sucker in the family! Help is now at hand with a wonderfully illustrated new book from Dr Runa Mowla-Copley: Charlie's Thumb.

Meet Charlie who loves sucking his thumb all day and all night. A visit from the Tooth Fairy leads to some rather unusual events which make Charlie think perhaps sucking his thumb isn't such a good idea after all.  Charlie’s Thumb is available online from Waterstones and Amazon.

Dr Runa Mowla-Copley, BDS (Hons), DipOrth, runs Thumb Sucking clinics at Quadrant Orthodontics, Richmond & Knightsbridge Orthodontics.